The volcanic activity began to subside after five hours on Saturday [AFP] 

Villagers have fled their homes after the Tungurahua volcano in central Ecuador erupted, spewing rocks, gas and ash that prompted officials to order the evacuation of nearby communities.

A red alert on a possible major eruption was issued on Saturday but hours later authorities downgraded it to orange as activity eased later in the day.

Hugo Yepez, director of Ecuador's Geophysical Institute, said no one had been injured nor any village damaged. He said people within eight kilometres of the volcano's centre had been evacuated on Saturday as a precaution.

"There remains a constant column of ash emissions," a statement from the Polytechnic Geophysics Institute, Ecuador's main volcano monitor said.

Parts of Banos, a nearby town popular with foreign and local tourists, were among the places evacuated.

The Tungurahua volcano, which means "Throat of Fire" in Ecuador's native Quechua language, has been rumbling off and on since seismic activity began to pick up in the area in 1999.

Located 130 kilometres southeast of the capital, Quito, the 5,020-metre Tungurahua is one of eight active volcanoes in the Andean nation.

An eruption of ash from Tungurahua last May caused a one-day shutdown of the international airport at Ecuador's largest city, Guayaquil. Thousands of people near the volcano were evacuated.

In 2006, an eruption buried entire villages and killed at least four people.

Source: Agencies